Mention the name “Cardinal Richelieu” to many people and probably they will immediately think of him as a villainous figure in André Dumas’ swashbuckling tales of the “Three Musketeers.” I have to admit that I was one of those folk too.
The reality is however somewhat different, so lets have a little history lesson:
He was born, Armand du Plessis in Paris in 1585, the fourth of five children. His father was a soldier and courtier to King Henry III of France who for Du Plessis’ assistance in the Wars of Religion granted the family the Bishopric of Luçon. This not only had religious significance, but also was an important source of income for the family, particularly as du Plessis senior also died in said war!
In an inspired move to protect the important income stream, young du Plessis’ mother decided that one of her sons had to become a priest and in a way Armand drew the short straw, however he embraced the academic side of his new life and enthusiastically threw himself into the role.
In 1607 du Plessis was consecrated Bishop of Luçon and set about implementing a program of church reform. His political career began when in 1614 he was asked by the clergymen of Poitou to be their representative in the Estates General, one of the advisory bodies to King Louis XIII’s of France; du Plessis began to get further noticed and soon entered the service of the King’s wife Anne of Austria.
Du Plessis then began a further upward progression.
The King nominated him as a Cardinal and in 1622 Pope Gregory XV duly approved the appointment. The new Cardinal became a prominent advisor to the King and was appointed to the Royal Council of Ministers in 1624, becoming effective Principal Minister in August of that year and the President of the Council in 1629 when he was also granted the Dukedom of Richelieu and adopted the title “Cardinal Richelieu.”
Richelieu is credited with establishing an authoritative monarchy and effectively dissolving the previous feudal control that had been enjoyed by regional nobility. He ordered all fortified castles, except those needed for national defence to be razed, as a result he became hated by many Princes, Dukes and lesser nobility by removing their strongholds that potentially could have been used against the King in times of rebellion. He did much to cement the basis of France as one cohesive and united nation, a country with with centralised power that was able to spread influence far beyond it’s own borders.
He is remembered for an authoritarian approach; he demonstrated early control of the press, built a network of internal spies and banned public assemblies for the discussion of political matters.
Is legacy was well summed up by Canadian historian John Ralston Paul who referred to Richelieu as “the father of the modern nation state, modern centralised power and modern secret service.” I like that!
So why did the Cardinal adopt the small village of Richelieu, in the South of the Val de Loire, as the seat of his Dukedom?
Well, the young du Plessis spent his youth there, it was, in fact, the village of his ancestors and now he was a Cardinal he could afford to buy the place, pretty cool for a lad that was effectively forced into the priesthood!
The Cardinal didn’t stop there, in fact he was only just getting going….
He engaged Paris architect Jacques Lemercier, who had worked for him on various project in the capital, and together they set about creating a new town from scratch.
With the Kings permission they built a walled town on a grid pattern with an adjacent grand palace, the Château de Richelieu.
The whole lot was surrounded by a moat, that was not only decorative but served as an ingenious sewer system taking away the towns effluent.I love that the thoughtful Cardinal had a slightly smaller Château built about three miles away for his mistress; nice one Armand!
Today the grand Château is long gone, but the small town, population 1800, remains and very interesting it is too. I love the place, but as a French friend of mine observed, it’s one of those places that you either love or can’t wait to get out of!
The other day Mrs Dookes and I had a very enjoyable couple of hours wandering through the town, visiting the market and discovering part of the grand château’s park.
If you are ever in the area it’s definitely worth dropping by, if only for a coffee and to wish the old Cardinal well!
Catch you soon.